How to Understand Chinese Modernization
By Yongnian Zheng

How to Understand Chinese Modernization

Mar. 11, 2023  |     |  0 comments


In the 20th Congress report, China systematically expounded the essence of "Chinese-style modernization" for the first time, putting forward nine essential requirements. Achieving "Chinese-style modernization" is difficult, as it cannot be copied from Western modernization. The most distinct feature of Chinese-style modernization is its Chineseness. Since the 18th National Congress, the meaning of Chinese-style modernization has gradually become apparent. One can discuss “Chinese-style modernization” from the following perspectives.

Three Connotations of Modernization

The world's modernization began with the British Industrial Revolution of the 1760s and then developed in Western Europe and North America before spreading to other parts of the world. For a long time, people have easily understood "modernization" as complete Westernization. Many countries even viewed Western modernization experiences as the "model" that can be copied. Therefore, throughout the world, there are few countries like China that have both integrated into the world and obtained modernization while maintaining their independence and sovereignty.

China’s Modernization can be divided into three levels:

First, modernization in the material sense, including the development of roads, bridges, tall buildings, and technological innovation.

Second, modernization centered on people. As people are products of culture, it is necessary to modernize traditional culture.

Third, modernization of institutions. This is particularly important because the modernization of institutions is an intermediate variable that regulates the modernization of material and human aspects.

Advancing China's modernization means achieving coordinated development in three major areas: material, human, and institutional modernization. The Chinese approach also expands the path to modernization for developing countries.

From an international perspective, no country exists in isolation. A country's modernization is influenced both by its environmental external factors and also affects the outside world.

Regarding human modernization, there is a consensus to be found. In modern times, progress must be made to ensure that every person has a sense of achievement and that their material and spiritual lives are enriched. This includes what is referred to as "spiritual modernization" in China. While there is consensus on this point, there are also differences due to varying cultural and civilizational understandings of "spirituality."

Of the three aspects, institutional modernization is where the most significant differences lie. Institutional modernization is crucial. It serves as an essential lever to balance material and human modernization. If material modernization is the vertical axis and human modernization is the horizontal axis, institutional modernization is the middle axis that balances the two.

China's modernization differs from Western countries such as the United States. China has a socialist system, while the United States has a capitalist system, and its modernization is dominated by capitalism. The United States actually has great achievements in the areas of economy and technology, but why does it run into problems now? The answer is that the system has issues. American-style modernization, globalization, and economic development have created much wealth. Still, social divisions have increased, income distribution has become more unequal, and ordinary people have not felt the benefits, leading to the rise of populism. Capital-led modernization has allowed for the unregulated development of capital, resulting in one-sided and imbalanced modernization in Western countries like the United States.

The Core Essence of Chinese-Style Modernization

So, what is the essence of institutional modernization? It is political modernization. For a society to develop, a stable political entity must be capable of leading progress. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a mission-oriented political party that, possessing a guiding force, differs from Western political parties in its governing style.

Since the 18th National Congress of the CCP, the large-scale anti-corruption campaign has been an example of the party's self-correction and self-revolution, serving as one of the sources of its vitality. Through self-revolution, the CCP leads the modernization of China's institutional reforms. Self-reform, which involves introspection, requires immense courage but is necessary for development and sustainability.

Based on achieving a moderately prosperous society in all respects, the CCP has put forward the idea of “common prosperity” , which is very meaningful. The essence of common prosperity is the pursuit of social fairness, and people have values. No one likes a society that is wealthy but unequal.

Many people translate "gongtong fuyu" as "common prosperity," but I believe that "inclusive growth" is more appropriate. This is because common prosperity is an inclusive and open development that involves first bringing prosperity to some social groups and then helping others become prosperous, ensuring everyone feels a sense of achievement. This is the process by which a country moves toward modernization.

On the one hand, I believe that "Chinese-style modernization" reflects traditional Chinese wisdom, including the spirit of Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese Confucianism and Taoism advocate for balance and equilibrium, which, when applied to our current development philosophy, emphasizes "comprehensive national strength."

On the other hand, "Chinese-style modernization" also stems from China's historical experiences and lessons of more than a century. Since modern times, Chinese patriots have explored "saving the country with commerce" and "saving the country with a strong military," but neither has truly succeeded. Many developed and some developing countries appear modernized in certain aspects, but are not fully modernized, dragging behind social development. Our lesson is that a country's modernization should be balanced rather than one-sided. It is not feasible if the economy achieves modernization but not national defense. Similarly, if only the military is modernized, but not the economy and society, it is also insufficient.

From the "Four Modernizations" before reform and opening to the 18th National Congress proposing the coordinated promotion of the "Five-in-One" overall layout and the coordinated promotion of the "Four Comprehensives" strategic layout, China in its new development stage emphasizes not only material modernization but also spiritual modernization. In the past development model, China has undermined the environment in some areas due to the one-sided pursuit of economic development, making economic development unsustainable and causing adverse effects. China is now advocating for "green mountains and clear water are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver" to achieve balanced development. Only through promoting comprehensive and balanced modernization can sustainable development be achieved.

During the early stages of reform and opening, China made efforts to make some regions prosperous first. Now, through large-scale targeted poverty alleviation, China has eradicated absolute poverty and embarked on a new journey of common prosperity based on balanced development. The poor must have opportunities to become wealthy, and the wealthy should not monopolize opportunities to create wealth. This also reflects the advantage of China's socialist system, as the CCP serves the public rather than serving special interests.

The Global Significance of Chinese-Style Modernization

During the May Fourth Movement, Chinese intellectuals understood modernization as introducing Western technology, systems, and ideas. After World War II, many countries embarked on Western-style modernization, and the Western path became a template for many countries to follow. However, China now needs its own style of modernization, which involves learning from best practices of other countries, combining national conditions, and developing its own way of modernization.

Chinese-style modernization combines Chinese and Western characteristics, traditional and modern, and should be primarily based on China's needs of development. It is not a complete rejection of Western culture nor a one-sided rejection of the West. The path to modernization is based on China's traditional history while Chinese culture and civilization should also keep up with the times. If Chinese history is interrupted, modernization will become completely Westernized, which is unreliable. After World War II, many countries in Asia and Latin America were learning Western systems, but they didn't learn or implement them well because they were unable to balance the Western experience with their own traditional values.

Chinese-style modernization provides a model and example for many countries that want to develop and achieve true independence. To succeed in the new path of Chinese-style modernization, China must continuously explore the future. It is important to note that while China cannot go backward, it should not turn into another America or Europe nor copy other countries' models. China must pursue modernization based on its own culture and national conditions, seeking both development and independence pragmatically. This is the significance of the Chinese model for other countries to learn from.

Looking at the economic aspect, China upholds both development and independence. First, China aims to expand its opening up. The innovation under the new whole-nation system is not carried out in isolation but in an open state. Second, China adheres to its own economic development model with Chinese characteristics, not the so-called state capitalism. Instead, China fully utilizes the roles of state-owned capital, private capital, and a mixed-ownership economy. Third, China aims to achieve inclusive development, promote the development of the sharing economy, and achieve common prosperity for all.

From the perspective of politics, the CCP is a mission-oriented party that carries out a long-term plan to achieve its great mission. China follows the governance path of government and social groups working together, promoting socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics through social organizations, the National People's Congress, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Reform and opening is a path for China to pursue modernization with Chinese characteristics.

The same is true in foreign affairs. In the early days of the founding of New China, the nation implemented a "non-interference" policy. Now that China has become more robust, it still adheres to the "non-interference" policy and concentrates resources on economic development.

Looking at the domestic situation, development is still crucial in the primary stage of socialism. Although China's overall economy is large, there is still a gap in per capita GDP compared to developed countries. At the same time, China must actively respond to challenges brought about by income distribution, aging, and environmental issues.

From an external perspective, China has encountered specific challenges in its relations with the United States and the European Union in recent years. The international environment has become increasingly complex. Looking at the lessons learned from the decline of some developed countries’ societies, China still needs to explore how to continuously optimize its economic policies and regulatory tools to avoid adverse effects brought by economic cycles. At the social level, in the current changing demographics, China should also constantly optimize its birth policies and keep up with the times.

Therefore, we need to propose solutions to the problems faced by all countries in the world in a unique way to China. For example, the United States has given rise to populism due to its failure to follow the path of inclusive growth, leading to widening wealth gaps. This is why the Chinese model has global significance, as it combines universality and particularity. If China's approach can address the world’s problems, it will also help to promote the creation of a human community with a shared future.

Looking further into the future, we should recognize that China's history is open, and Chinese civilization will continue to resiliently thrive and evolve.